Check the ads for horses for sale, and you will find that the animals are often categorized by the level of rider who can best be expected to handle them appropriately. Having been on both the buying and the selling end of the process, I’ve noted that many riders are not clear on what constitutes Beginner/Advanced Beginner, Intermediate/Novice, and Advanced/Professional levels of training. Many opportunities for humor can be had at the hands of a novice rider whose self-image had been unhappily enhanced by an instructor seeking to bolster confidence without actually adding the necessary skills.
In order to keep you from becoming the topic of another blog post, I offer the following guidelines:
Non-Rider: You have fond memories of pony rides from your childhood and can pick a horse out of a livestock lineup with a fair degree of certainty. You like the way horses look and enjoy flipping through the ads, but should not be considering buying a horse. Riding is not as easy as it looks.
Beginner Rider: You have been on a horse several times and may have had some lessons, either formal or informal. You are not entirely clear on the concept of diagonals or leads but can recognize at least three of the horse’s gaits. You comfortably ride the walk and trot without falling and have mastered stop and go. Under no circumstances should you be horse-shopping. If you must single out an equine partner, lease one from the lesson barn where you will continue to take lessons until such time as you are released into the wild.
Advanced Beginner: You have had a year’s lessons with a professional and are hitting the diagonals accurately about 75% of the time. You have cantered and can do so without panic, though your mount still gets off on the wrong lead from time to time. You are beginning to feel safe on a trail ride or in a group of riders in the ring and are not a hazard to yourself or others. If you’ve decided to buy a horse, aim for the ones labeled “family horse” or “husband horse” or an older animal designated “bombproof” and make sure you take a professional or advanced rider with you when you shop so that the description can be verified.
Intermediate/Novice Rider: This is where the lines begin to blur. An intermediate rider should have had several years of lessons with a professional trainer or have spent many miles in the saddle under the watchful eye of a very experienced rider. You should have no question in your mind which diagonal or lead you are addressing and hit the mark 100% of the time. You should be able to ride a shying or lightly bucking horse, take a horse across water or into new surroundings without injury to yourself or others, and recognize various illnesses and degrees of lameness. You should be adept at grooming and tacking up your own mount unassisted. When shopping, look for horses labeled for your level or lower. Many sellers who have many years of riding experience will classify a more advanced horse as “intermediate”, forgetting what it feels like to be a beginner. Do not even bother to look at a horse labeled “advanced” or “experienced rider” unless you have a pro or very advanced rider who is willing to try the animal and give you an assessment.
Advanced Rider: You have many years in the saddle, may have shown successfully at local or higher-level shows, and you’ve done some training. You have been trained by someone who was merciless in forcing you to face your fears, and you are willing and able to take risks with a full understanding of the possible consequences. You are someone to whom less-experienced riders turn for advice. There are few situations you have not encountered on horseback or on the ground around horses. You know basic vetting, can even stitch up a wound in an emergency. You have worked around horses or lived with them for years. You should be able to determine for yourself just by watching the seller ride the horse whether or not you want to take on the challenges the animal may present. Curiously, many advanced riders opt not for the outrageously difficult horse, but for the “packer”—the horse that’s been there, done that, and is capable of taking care of himself and his rider. Advanced riders are nobody’s fools.
Professional Rider: Differentiate this category from “professional horseman”. A horseman may run a farm and take care of horses without being a great rider. A pro rider makes money from the sport, either as a trainer, instructor, or high-level show rider. Professionals have many years of experience and have proven themselves repeatedly. Very little escapes their watchful eyes, so this is the person you want with you when you horse-shop. Though some professional riders have never actually had a lot of hands-on horse care experience, they can read a horse in an eye blink.
Keep in mind that your safety, that of your mount, and the safety of other people and property depend on the honesty with which you assess your riding skills. Accidents happen, of course, and there’s no guarantee against a horse taking the situation in hand in ways that put a human at risk, but compounding the problem by taking on riding situations or equine partners that are far above your ability level is foolhardy.